The morning was cold and I needed coffee.
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Driving the I40 to Detroit. Working shift for 48 hours straight. You know what I mean. Every time I blink I'm asleep. Every time I open them I am in a dream. Like "Fight Club" insomnia. Every thought comes in fragments. My world is a dream world.
I drive a tractor trailer solo. That's what I do for a living. My friends are the electrical towers, who look like lumbering giants playing a game of hopscotch across America. Landscapes come and go, and I love that part of the job. I like the city, but the country is also nice. Serpentine rivers slither between marshlands, yellow stretches for miles. It's rain season so I spend much time in small towns and rest centers with tiny urinals and open doors. The McDonalds's are also my friends.
The day was cold, like I stated before, and I was wet. I am a large man, but fit for the job. I have not yet gotten the belly that my CB colleagues have, but it is only a matter of time, I think! A hairy belly, indeed, and swelling much by each coffee I give it.
The landscape of that day I remember well, as I have driven this way many times before. There are many townhouses around the suburbs of Jennyline, and they peter off into farms as the dark road goes onward. The radio stations are bad so I play tapes. Genesis is my favorite with Peter Gabriel. He sings about Carpet Crawlers when I plow between the outcroppings of igneous rock, past a marshland where my friends the lumbering giants playing hopscotch sit amid a pond of shallow waters that have fought to a stalemate with the mossy rise on which they are sitting.
I see much more this way. The same things you see, I am sure, but maybe do not notice. The triple-vertical flashbulbs of cell phone antennae. The overpasses. Later in the day, as the light of the sun drifts in a parabola across the sky, the world changes and it is even harder to stay awake. Lane markers, freshly painted, betray their freshness with their neon brightness. The sky is a dead channel. There is only the road.
I grew up in Spain, got used to the glamour of the city. I came to this country, learned to drive a forklift, got a license later. Upgraded to trucking license in the yards in Detroit. Here I am now. I like my job.
And there It was, too. Waiting for me.
I have a headset provided to the company by AT&T midwest. I get a call from Alice that morning. My sister. She is a nurse. She says she needs money. She says she needs it badly. Jeremy my nephew cries in the background. Please call back when you're home she says. I worry about her when she says things about her heart and the doctors speak of lesions in her heart's left vein.
By now, the light is very dark. Headlights illuminate two car spaces ahead, no more, all else is but a silhouette backdrop. When going over hills the lights are useless; no-one is to know what is on the other side, and the shadows are elongated because of the numerous crests. Because of the mist, the lights are soaked into the backdrop like a mid light mirage. Looking into the forest at dark is an exercise of deciphering colors from much gray.
The trees are walls that are speeding past very fast, their motion intuits a liveliness to the roving hills and forest, like a pair of eyes trained on me alone; they close in sharply. Rain is now battering down from the blue-and-yellow dusk with such bitter density that it reminds of a dentist's salt sprayer. I close my windows. With all this I am barely able to notice the Chevy off my right that is rooted into the deep woods.
Signal gets cut off. I think. I don't remember, that's when things get hazy.
The I40 crossing between Talman and Brookside is mostly woodlands. A pop group is on the radio singing about being survivors. I say great and consider putting in a tape when the signal dies.
The phone dies too. And the engine.
I hear it die and say to myself "this isn't happening". And I second guess what my sense are perceiving - a small puttering of the engine and the death of my headlights - but a distant and very cold part of me knows that the truck has failed completely and I am losing control. This part of me is trained to react, and despite the surprise, reacts.
This is lucky for me, because there's a four-car smashup along the ditch that trails back to take up the width of the road. I try the emergency brake. It works. I am on a return run, and there is no product in the rear, so the back starts to swerve. Impossible to control, but I try. I feel this happening in a matter of seconds.
Righthand wheel goes off the road. I say Shit. When the transport clocks over a group of trees, I say Jesus Mother and Holy Ghost. I hear the bark breaking. Squealing tires. The righthand window smashes inwards at the hand of a branch. Glass covers my side. I say nothing in a scream. Half-thinking, I pull my horn. In case someone's inside and doesn't see me.
Too late. The front bashes the trunk of a Beatle half-way on the road. The VW crumbles into tinfoil. I stop screaming and almost jump out of the cab as the back section swings over to the left and blocks the road completely. I save my own life that night, as could have been run over by my own addition to the existing disaster.
I spend a few minutes swearing in spanish. Hemingway wrote Obscenity when people swore in spanish. I said Obscenity.
Pieces of glass still in my flesh. Especially the gut, wrist. I pull the glass out and try to ignore the pain but cannot. I jump out of the cab. Not hurt, muscles sore. Walk deep into the wreckage.
Four cars. One wrecked Beatle, one Ford Taurus, one lime-green hotrod and one black sedan. All empty. I check them out. Keys are left in the car of two. I wonder what's happened.
I feel the roving eyes of the country are on me. And perhaps others. That is when the noises begin.
Obscenity, I say, and turn. There's no-one there, I don't see, so I walk to the black sedan and get in. I feel safe in the tinted windows. I lock the doors manually. The battery must have died in all of them. They won't turn on.
I realize I'm still wearing my headset. The phone dangles at my waist. It's running on battery. I get no signal, no dialtone. No american voice says, "We're sorry, but your call cannot be placed..." and I Obscenity. I am frightened. There is no power.
The noises begin outside. Like hooting, like owls, but cat-like. I don't know. Sometimes clicking. Sometimes scratching. I am surrounded by beasts. I can see nothing, but I feel them watching. They are many and I am alone in a black sedan.
I check the car. Glove compartment has a gun in it. I don't know what kind and do not ask why it is there. I've never used a gun. I check if it has bullets. It does. In the back, I see a little girl's doll. Somebody forgot their toys.
I look out. I realize it is very quiet. I don't see anything move. I look at the gun and feel safer. I remember the TV shows about law and government and how they use their guns.
I take off the safety and get out of the car.
The road is cut off at this distance, the air smells of ash. I see flashlights moving in the pines past a small fire that has started. I don't know why, but I hide. I am very frightened...
In the approaching flashes of light through the birches, I could make out no figures, as the brightness was too high and the shadows too many. I however had that overwhelming feeling of dreadness in me, which I can't relate very much. Though the wind was fierce then, I could hear them, these men, making the sounds that so perturbed me earlier. So I did as I could at the time, without thinking and moving very much with instinct only. I hid.
Looking around at the wreckage, there was no absence of places in which I could hide. Certainly, these men that gave me the dead-sense would hear me, only a hundred feet from the road and still in thick brush, if I were to slam the door and get in. So I decided to stay away from the inside of the cars. I crouched low, bent over, and shuffled my self down below the black sedan, just as one of the men-creatures came into visibility.
The air was not calm. When the wind moves over many trees, it sounds of the ocean: this I recall. I also recall the amazement, and pride, I had within my self as I looked on the deformed man-things with their electric torches. Amazement at their visage: the first had eyes like no eyes I have seen before, they seemed to have no pupils in them, though it was hard to see. I was not sure of this until I saw the second, who also had no pupils, and it was plain to me that this was so, for the full moon of that night (the 22nd) let itself through the clouds and revealed the monsters. More horrible still was the ways in which they walked. Like caterpillars, I thought, with one step their heads high and the next with them low, as if they were paying much attention to both sky and ground at once.
They were dressed in brown coats, every one; metal piercings ran through the thin skins between their hands, I saw, as I looked at the flashlights. There were five in total: and one spoke English, to my astonishment, interspersed by a dull whine.
"Another," it said, I think it was a he. He said. And he bobbed his head up and down, licking his blue, frosted lips. I think he was looking for me, or whoever they thought had been in the truck. His white orbs locked on me, and I groaned, very much certain that they were going to find me, take me away, and perhaps I would never again be seen by the natural world. These men were not natural. I knew this.
Then, I heard another voice - a whisper - it came from beneath the hotrod. This sixth voice was talking to me. "Don't speak," the voice said, very deep in tone, and I said nothing. On examination, I saw another person beneath, an old man without any teeth in him. The overcast came in, and it was hard to make him out, but I did see his wrinkled old hands gripped on the front wheels. One finger was on his upper lip, in a "shh" motion.
The five creatures growled, and I feared very much that they had heard, and would soon find myself and this new other. Suddenly a crackle came to life, then roared to life in full volume, and I recognized it as a CB radio. In my truck!
"--24 Tango, this is not the most fun lug I've, uh, done in years, the chickens won't stop clucking and I swear they aim to shit on me, over--" ... "--I hear you, heh heh, Rooster. (long pause) Just you try the sulfur run, over--"
And just as suddenly, the second man, the leader, it seems, from his poise, twirled his hand as a ghost crossed his brow. I heard many sparks, certainly an electrical fire, and with a very slight turn of my head saw the cab of my truck was in flames. He had destroyed my radio, somehow, without touching it!
I trembled, and they conferred, in low grunts. In this time, my mind raced, and I thought of my sister and her son. I wondered what they would do without me if the worst should happen. I said to myself, "This cannot be happening". But the shards of glass, tiny as they were in my stomach and arm, granted me no delusions. The pain made things real.
It was around this time that I passed out. I do not recall the circumstances before the blackness came, and am loathe to say I fainted, but sadly, it was so.
I had no dreams.
When I awoke, the creatures were gone, yet I was not alone. A material, some cloth that was not mine, covered an unfamiliar form beside me below that muddy black sedan. I looked beside me and saw the old man had crawled up next to me while I was out. He held onto me like a child to his mother, and I was repulsed, and shocked, and my fright startled him.
He had red eyes, the eyes of a man who drinks much of what he earns. They looked at me, to me, and seemed to latch upon my own eyes, poring for understanding, in desperation. Yes, desperation, that is a good word for these circumstances. From him I saw the definition of the word haggard, from his strawberry nose and unshaven cheeks. I pushed him back, but he tried to crawl in towards me again, and I almost lost my cover then and there, until my wakefulness took control of my wits and granted me my senses.
"Who are you and what has happened?" I asked. He kept looking at me in fear, his old wrinkled lips trembling, and I reflected that pity was all that saved him from my anger then.
Finally, perhaps seeing my rapid impatience, he said, "Nathaniel Fa-forsythe. I... don't know, ah... thought you was in to rescue us."
I did not understand, and wondered for a moment if I had misunderstood. Sometimes, the speakers of Spanish are hard pressed to understand English structure of language. To aid in my confusion, this man spoke with a lisp of sorts, making him whistle with every s.
I shook my head after a second of pause, deserting it of fatigue.
"I am not here to rescue," I said. "I am here to go home! What has happened here? Who are those men?"
"Those are no men," he stammered. I was taken aback from his abruptness, but the chill of his tone kept me from moving. "They used to be, men, you see, but something changed in them... like their minds are just ... a goner."
"What do you mean, goner? I do not understand."
I began to crawl away then, observing the darkness around. All of the fires had extinguished, and I was light-headed, as the air beneath the sedan was poisoned by gasoline. He crawled out beside me, with much objection, but my instincts in that dark moment told me that we were alone.
"They did not look like men," I said. I walked a few paces to my truck to fetch my cigarettes. "You are right in that regard."
"You talk funny..." the old man whispered, and in the side view mirror I saw him crouch. "You sound french."
I smiled, but could not afford a laugh. So many Americans despise the french that it is sometimes comical.
"I am Espagnol, senor," I whispered back. I reached my hand into the cab. I was taken aback when suddenly sparks flew out of my destroyed CB. The old man seemed to howl in fear.
"They'll come back, now you've done it you stupid, stupid man!" he said coarsely.
I held little objection. My mind whirled, as I tried to establish priorities. My first priority was plain. Calm down the old man to understand the details of this accident.
"So," I said, pulling the cigarette pack from the compartment built into the driver's side door. "Do you smoke?"
"At a time like this I should wonder if you are crazy!" he said to me. "Marsha and Delanie will come back with the Sheriff, and when that happens, I'll tell them all about you, yes I will."
I wondered for a moment if it would be proper to remove one of the marijuana cigarettes from the pack, and declined. Nathaniel's face was earnest.
"My name is David... I am not your enemy. Of that you can be certain." I paused then, I think to catch my breath, and laughed out loud. Oh, how my hand shook as I gripped my lighter! It was so hard to remain on edge for minutes, after so little sleep, the unseen eyes of the darkness stalking an old man and his new companion...
He seemed to relax, looking very much less like a living impersonation of the butler from the Rocky Horror Picture show. "All right," he said, with a half-grin. I offered him a special cigarette, which he took with reluctant gratitude, not before instinctively surveying the accident for nonexistent observers. His eyes held little faith in my assurances, but I imagined he was more comfortable, at his age, with the specter of death. His body resigned in tension. "I'll hold you to that, frenchy."
"You can be certain of another thing," I said, wiping a tear off my eyelash. This added dust into my eye and made them water far worse, and I laughed harder.
"What?" he said.
"Whatever circumstances which we are entangled," I said through gasps, "we have passed a point somewhere from which we cannot return."
He chuckled, and it did not seem forced, but a light flashed in the distance and the laughter stopped at the drop of a dime.
"'You think you understand me," said Kerouac to Mark. 'You don't understand me at all. You want to fight about it?' Mark said nothing, not knowing who Kerouac was or what he was so mad about." -- from Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.